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  • Tarragona Associates

COVID-19 and Career Services: An Opportunity to Breakdown Silos

by Emily Pinette

The COVID-19 economic impact is continuing to unfold with the April 2020 unemployment rate reaching 14.7%, meaning 20.5 million American workers have lost their jobs - the May 2020 data is expected to be even worse - the highest level since the Great Depression.

Given that economic crises of any size have both short-term and long-term effects, career service offices now face the dual challenge of offering student services during the COVID-19 era and helping students navigate a shrinking job market.

This all comes at a time of budget uncertainty across many colleges and universities, with career service offices being no exception. A May 26 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that among career service offices:

  • 14% have seen their budgets decrease by more than 10% and 48% are still undecided.

  • 51% of career centers have implemented spending freezes.

  • 69% of career centers indicate the spending freeze is indefinite, while 19% report it will last one to three months.

This means that career service offices, along with many other departments across college or university campuses, will be doing more with less. While this is certainly a challenge to overcome, it also offers an opportunity to break down silos within the university and build those partnerships that will make a positive experience for students.

Universities and colleges should consider the following questions as they evaluate the effectiveness of their career planning opportunities for students during this time of COVID-19 and elevated unemployment:

  • How collaborative are the Career Services and Alumni Relations offices already?

  • Are digital engagements with alumni and students meaningful and effective?

  • Are alumni actively involved in the student job search plan?

The following are 4 ways to integrate your alumni and career services to enhance outcomes for your students:

1) Partner with Alumni Relations

Breaking down walls between departments is not a new concept. In fact, the partnership between Career Services and Alumni Relations has already been on the radar as a trend worth exploring, with some universities like the University of Richmond already combining their career service and alumni relations offices.

However, just because it isn’t a new concept, doesn’t mean it is easy to do. The COVID-19 crisis may have created a prime opportunity within your organization to advance this cross collaboration among two key departments.

In alumni relations, teams are trying to re-imagine engagement in a world that will lean heavily toward virtual interactions. A recent (virtual) panel discussion hosted by AGN, “Engaging Alumni through Virtual Events and Activities”, argued that you can’t just take a normal event, change it to virtual, and expect it to succeed. You have to think about what your alumni audience wants and how they want to engage. In other words, “what’s in it for me” still applies, even online.

At the same time, panelists discussed that, in the future, any in-person strategy will likely contain an online component, but what that will look like at individual colleges and universities is up for debate. In sum, Alumni Relations offices are trying to understand:

  • How do we make digital meaningful?

  • How do we create opportunities to communicate, connect and reconnect remotely?

This offers an opportunity for career service offices. Creating a connection between alumni and students has always been of benefit to both sides. Focusing on those connections now will make it easier to cut through the digital clutter and get your university’s message out to alumni. At the same time, career service offices will be able to serve the Class of 2020 in securing jobs NOW while also preparing to help students next semester and beyond.

2) Consider Making Your Digital Alumni Engagement Opportunities - Career Engagement Opportunities

According to Evertrue, participation rates among digitally engaged alumni are 3.4 times higher than among alumni who don’t engage digitally. This means that if you can engage them meaningfully online, they will keep coming back at a higher rate. Every organization and company is rushing to engage people online right now, however. Not to mention, people are spending more time online for their jobs. How do you make sure your alumni are focused on your digital events and make time for them? Two words: Students and Career.

As you begin to integrate digital into longer-term strategies, consider focusing your digital elements for alumni on careers. This could be online networking with students, a virtual workshop about personal branding or online alumni/employer information sessions. The connections during these programs should be about Student-to-Alumni and Alumni-to-Alumni interactions.

For alumni, this gives them an opportunity to give back to students without leaving their homes. For those alumni who have found themselves on the job market, these types of events will help create or strengthen a relationship with your institution as you help them through a difficult time.

For students, in the short-term, this gives the Class of 2020 opportunities to network--at a time when that is becoming more difficult. It will also give them (and the career service office) the chance to make new connections within the alumni community that may play a role in future strategic planning.

3) Make Alumni a Part of Career Service Offerings for Fall 2020...and Beyond

According to the NACE survey, ”27% of career centers are planning for a hybrid fall 2020 and an in-person spring 2021.” This means that Fall 2020 could see career service offices serving students scattered across a state, the nation or internationally. Remote coaching and online resources can be part of the answer, but not the only answer. Utilizing alumni networks can expand your reach with services, potentially offering in-person options -- where state and local regulations would allow, such as:

  • Spot mentoring: Whether it’s digital or in-person, alumni within a student’s hometown could offer a one-time coaching session to supplement the career center’s offerings.

  • Employer Site Visits: While you may have to get creative about what this looks like in any given city or state, consider using this opportunity to connect students with alumni/employers in their hometowns--giving them a leg-up when they do start their job search.

  • Small Group Workshops: Again, depending on local regulations, you may be able to get alumni who are willing to lead small in-person working groups with students, focused on topics like resume writing, interview skills or the job search.

4) Remember that Alumni are Employers too

The University of Virginia offers a perfect example of leveraging alumni partnerships to create opportunities for students looking for internships or employment during this time. This university actively solicits input from alumni, and other stakeholders, to create virtual internships and virtual short-term team or individual projects to help students continue building their resume and areas of expertise.

Such outreach activities may have originated as a stop-gap for students who lost out on internships or full-time job offers, but the idea of engaging alumni in ways outside of the traditional job postings or recruiting cycle can lead to more innovative and experiential opportunities for students going forward.

The bottom line is that alumni relations and career services might have seemingly different pain points right now. By coming together, they could satisfy the needs of their constituents. The two offices can identify opportunities to collaborate by developing a common calendar of events. They can develop a committee composed of students and alumni to identify potential events that would benefit both offices. Alumni and career offices can pool their resources to have a broader reach and create greater opportunities for their constituents. The solutions above, as well as others, can address the challenges faced by career and alumni service professionals at the same time, helping to efficiently stretch and reserve scarce resources.

TA Solutions

Tarragona Associates provides consulting expertise to our higher ed clients. With Tarragona Associates’ help, you will:

  • increase student success and satisfaction

  • improve faculty and staff buy-in and engagement

  • enhance the health of your enrollment and retention pipelines

  • create strong core-mission budgets and build institutional revenue

  • protect the integrity of your academic promise

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About the Author

Working for 10-years in public relations and marketing, Emily Pinette, MBA, now specializes in career services, professional development and alumni relations for colleges and universities. She builds scalable programs, volunteer relationships, and overall strategies to help institutions meet their goals with both internal and external constituencies.

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